Ad fraud

Tackling video ad fraud

Tackling video ad fraud

Digital advertising has had its fair share of issues over the years, some have been overcome, some remain bugbears and others are critically problematic in our industry today. Video ad fraud is, without a doubt, the latter. In 2015 we saw the rise of bots and in 2016 the advertising industry is set to attribute losses of approximately $7.2 billion globally to the nasty things.

What is ad fraud?

Video ad fraud covers a range of deceitful techniques administered by fraudsters with the object of making money. One of the reasons video ad fraud is the plague of programmatic advertising is that it can appear in so many forms, therefore, making it difficult for the industry to identify and deal with it. Here are some of the types of desktop fraud we come across at Coull:

Automated traffic

Automatic traffic finds botnet activity flagged on the user level through real-time traffic pattern analysis.


The IP address is a known proxy.


The user’s device and browser were manipulated to resemble a different device or browser. This technique is commonly used to produce a real-life distribution of traffic and simulate traffic from multiple visitors.

Ad injection

The ad was locked by ad injection software, often bundled with other software like games and toolbars. This practice artificially inflates the number of ads on a page and can lead to a negative user experience.

Cloaked domains

There’s an imbalance between the domain where the ad appeared and the referring domain. This practice enables undesirable properties such as pirate and adult sites to sell inventory under a high-CPM category such as cars or travel.

Domain spoofing

The publisher reports an inaccurate domain to the exchange. The ad never appeared on the publisher-reported domain. This practice allows publishers to misrepresent low-quality inventory as coming from high-quality sources. In some cases, ghost sites can use this technique.

Video ad fraud bots aren't as cute as Wall-e

What are bots?

Unfortunately, I’m not talking about WALL-E. The bots I’m referring to represent non-human traffic, the most common form of ad fraud today. Fraud exists to make money illegally and as digital advertising grows, fraudsters are able to take advantage of the system. Bots can come from software that runs automated tasks over the internet to simulate human activity. It’s been estimated by Videology that 8%-23% of online video ad inventory is consumed by bot impressions. This is a significant problem for video advertisers to contend with.


At Coull, we utilise industry-leading cybersecurity services to filter and detect inappropriate content coming through the system. Our Compliance team use strategies to identify and rate any invalid traffic. This enables us to have a multi-level process targeting ad fraud and eliminating it from our platform. Manual detection is a key part in removing certain types of domain fraud, including the aforementioned ghost sites, that haunt the web.

Who you gonna call?…

So what are ‘ghost’ sites? Well, they’re spooks! Ghost sites may look like ordinary websites at first glance, however, if you dig a little deeper you will uncover their dark secrets. These sinister pages exist to bypass tech filters and, because they look clean and safe, tech vendors let them off the hook.

We’re doing everything we can to identify ghost sites and ensure the culprits don’t get past our compliance. But there are things you can do too, and they don’t involve bringing in an exorcist. Follow the simple tips below and you’ll be able to spot a ghost site a mile away.

How to spot a ghost (site)

WordPress templates

Ghost sites typically look very similar as their templates often originate from WordPress. The templates will all have the same layout with different skins for each.

No contact or web hosting information

Ghost sites will, more often than not, have links to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. However, if you click on the links they’ll lead to nothing or old accounts. Something else to look out for is cheap website solutions such as ‘Garden Pages’ and a hidden presence on the internet with services like DomainsByProxy. Do you want to contact the owner? No chance. They won’t have any contact information or the information will be false.

Strange growth patterns

Ghost sites don’t pay for their traffic growth and will buy from Click Farms.

Hardcoded banner ads

Banner ads on a ghost site will have a URL destination which will lead straight back to the same ghost site. The banner ads are mostly static images making them seem like genuine ads, however, they’re most probably fake.

Will there be a future without video ad fraud?

Ad fraud detection is a very tricky business. Every day is like the wild west with fraudsters stealing impressions left, right and centre. There’s no superhero to lock them up and put an end to their tyranny. But we’re working hard to change that.

Our compliance team is leading the way and guarding our marketplace against fraudulent activity. Coull has a zero-tolerance policy and we take all forms of video ad fraud very seriously. We’re raising awareness and working with leading fraud detection vendors to make the industry a fraud-free place for our partners. We can weed the industry garden of video ad fraud, we’re just asking for your help to replant it.

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PubNative – native mobile advertising

PubNative – native mobile advertising

As part of our blog series on mobile advertising, we spoke with Ionut Ciobotaru, Co-founder and Managing Director of PubNative. Ionut tells us more about this native SSP and how native mobile advertising – specifically video, is evolving.

PubNative - native mobile advertising platform

We know mobile is exploding in regards to advertising, especially video. Can you explain what role PubNative plays in mobile advertising?

PubNative is a global mobile supply-side platform (SSP) that’s fully focused on native advertising. We work directly with mobile publishers to understand their needs and provide monetisation solutions.

We have a huge range of demand in order to create good competition within the PubNative marketplace and maximise the eCPMs for our publishers. Our business model is based on a revenue share with publishers, they can receive up to 90% of the revenue generated through our platform.

In terms of video, we’re working on some native and in-feed video ad placements. This is a really interesting area and it’s something we’re working hard on. It’s changing pretty fast but definitely offers an exciting future.

Tell us about the ‘native’ side of the business. How you differentiate native mobile from other mobile ads?

At PubNative, we see native advertising as a framework. Adverts should fit the form of the context (i.e. the UX), but also the content. Through this combination, native ads should actually enhance rather than disrupt the user experience.

Firstly, in terms of UX, the ad should fit in with the app and not look out of place. If we look at Instagram, the native ads fit seamlessly in the feed and therefore don’t interrupt users when scrolling.

Instagram native mobile advertising

Source: PubNative

In terms of context, it’s about delivering relevant adverts according to the user profile. To take the example of Instagram again, they use information about a user – for example, an early 20s woman from San Francisco who follows fashion accounts. With this information, they’re able to use adverts that fit the context of that user’s Instagram feed. For example, with adverts for related fashion products.

How do you best work ads around UX for gaming apps?

This is actually something I covered relatively recently in our blog, looking at several examples of in-game advertising. Overall, the issue is about following the principles of fitting the advert to the content and context of the games. In real terms, this means a consideration of the way a game is built, amongst others.

For example, users are likely to be more to download a similar game when they’ve just completed a level rather than halfway through. By considering factors like this, we can boost UX and improve installs.

What is the biggest challenge for mobile advertisers at the moment?

One of the biggest challenges is educating mobile advertisers. Since mobile native is still new, it’s really important to spread the word to advertisers and publishers. Many marketers like to stick to what they know, so this is about showcasing why native is a future option and illustrating its qualities in comparison to more traditional formats.

To what extent do you think mobile publishers are being affected by ad blocking? How do you approach this problem?

I’d say that mobile is being marginally affected by ad-blocking. There are two cases to consider: mobile in-app, which can’t be blocked so easily so the impact is minimal. And mobile web, where all the ad blockers can function, but its impact is actually pretty limited. In addition, Google recently removed Samsung’s ad-blocking tool, showing the influence of major players in the market.

With movements like the Acceptable Ads Manifesto, the industry is evolving in a way that both advertisers and users can live happily ever after. For those of us working in the native sector, this is about making sure our adverts work with the form and the function.

With this kind of combination, we should increasingly see adverts deliver value to the user and in turn, remove factors that cause the use of ad blocking in the first place.

You have global offices, what is the scale of PubNative and are you seeing any particular trends based on geography?

Our HQ is based in Berlin and we also have offices in San Francisco, Beijing and Seoul to serve all of our major markets. We’re expanding fast and Berlin gives us the ideal location for working between the two time zones.

APAC is one of the fastest growing markets for us. Smartphone penetration is particularly high there and some of the emerging markets are mobile first. Still, because of its maturity, the US remains the highest revenue generating market.

In-app and mobile web are significantly different when it comes to ad serving. Do you service both mobile formats or do you deal purely with apps?

Most of our clients are mobile app publishers, but we also work with mobile web publishers. With so much search being conducted through mobile web, it’s still a significant source of traffic for advertisers.

Mobile web can be seen as falling somewhere between desktop and mobile app. Whilst it often employs resized ad formats used on desktop, it has to be optimised for the smaller screen and provide good UX.

If you work with both is there a particular advantage one has over the other?

It really depends on the user base of mobile web and apps. At the moment, I’d say that there are more native formats for in-app native rather than for the mobile web.

Mobile web is an application of the desktop meaning the content is being consumed in similar ways. Such as using news websites, blogs, portals, etc. This means that native on mobile web is a direct replica of native on desktop, so it follows the IAB Native Advertising Playbook guidelines.

Another factor is simply mobile optimization. Some companies fail to adequately optimize their sites for mobile, and so, ads on these sites are unlikely to provide good UX or ROI for advertisers.

Mobile apps, on the other hand, have specific functionalities, such as games, and the UX is very particular to each function or app. In turn, this means that in-app native advertising has to be much more flexible in terms of format.

Do you encounter any issues with transparency and how do you tackle viewability, brand safety and fraud issues within mobile?

Ad tech is a fast-moving space that has evolved incredibly quickly. So, it can be difficult to ensure that everyone follows best practices and plays by the rules.

The issue of fraud, in particular, has certainly been a topic of conversation lately. In fact, there are a number of different fraudulent activities that have taken place, one of which is the issue of click spamming. We need to come together as an industry to ensure that we reduce the frequency and impact of issues like ad fraud.

As well as fraud, there a number of other issues that affect the industry. In terms of viewability, the MRC has actually just released a paper on the viewability of native ads, so this part is already happening. Increasing transparency on both the publisher and advertiser side would also help tackle issues like fraud.

What is your mobile advertising prediction for 2016? Is this finally the year of mobile (at least when it comes to advertising)?

As the mobile native advertising ecosystem continues to rapidly evolve, 2016 is going to see technology advancements that support an increasing demand for control and transparency.

While mobile advertisers are requesting more guarantees over their native programmatic campaigns (viewability, fraud), mobile publishers are rightfully demanding more transparency in pricing.

In this context, we should inevitably see the emergence of independent, third-party technology solutions – unified platforms. These platforms will aggregate all mobile native demand, enabling publishers to price their inventory and maximise their revenue in a transparent way for advertisers.

About the author:

Ionut Ciobotaru - PubNative, native mobile advertising platform.

Ionut Ciobotaru (Co-founder & Managing Director of PubNative) started his career with a web development company and several technology-related blogs. After years of entrepreneurial work in fields like eCommerce and digital marketing, Ionut sought a new challenge in the mobile space. He joined AppLift where he successfully developed company’s product suite for publishers and media partners. In order to fully focus on improving solutions for mobile publishers, he founded PubNative, a native mobile publisher platform.

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Coull Quickie – February 2016

In the Coull Quickie for February, Elise looks at the recent MWC, talks about Google AMP and Tube Mogul’s decision to refund advertisers for fraudulent ad impressions. All this and more programmatic video advertising news from February.

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Five ways to improve digital advertising now

It’s no secret advertising creative needs to improve. The conundrum we face is that brands also need the security of premium inventory availability. Brands are understandably deterred from spending budgets on inventory when they have no guarantee what they’re buying. Forget comparing apples to oranges. This is more akin to going to the grocery store, paying for your weekly shopping and then going home with empty bags. So what can we do now to ensure a transparent digital advertising experience for buyers and sellers? Here are five areas where the industry can, and needs to improve right now:

Tackle ad fraud

A massive tidy up is required. Bot traffic can’t always be easily detected, but there is a lot of traffic that can be shunned from the industry very simply and blacklisting is just one method of doing this. We’re slowly making progress but industry bodies need to throw everything they have behind making our market transparent for buyers. This means working with ad fraud specialists to minimize damage and create solutions. It also means implementing clear (I’m sorry I said CLEAR) standards for measuring impressions and performance. These are simple standards yet they’re still in limbo and it is time decisions were made to put a stop to the guesswork.

Be inventive and innovative when it comes to creative

That’s why it’s called creative after all. Advertising should be memorable and evocative, not intrusive and irritating. It’s not rocket science, invest in the message and the experience by creating high definition, interactive ads and digital advertising as currency may stand a chance yet.

Think about the device your campaign is being delivered on and build creative according to that experience. A high definition interactive video pre-roll might be great for desktop, but on mobile, it might perform very differently and end up using data, bandwidth and battery. Be responsible rather than apathetic and audiences will be more likely to enable ads.

There are many ad formats to utilize and each can serve campaigns successfully if the effort goes in. There’s no shortage of Don Draper analogies in this industry. And while the hope we’ve moved ahead since those times, perhaps in some respects we need to wind back our approach at least a little and think about the creative that goes into every ad unit, and every sale.

Improve the use of data – analyse and apply insights

Viewability and brand safety have been the nemesis of the ad industry for some time now. Everybody knows we need to get this right just as much as we do ad fraud if the industry has any chance of flourishing. Data is often seen as the answer to our prayers, but if not used effectively – data is dormant – it doesn’t do a damn thing. We need to understand the skills applicable to the emerging landscape and use data scientists to interpret data and recommend an actionable strategy.

Demand higher standards and better competition from media giants like Facebook and Google

Facebook has just announced it will sell 100% viewable video inventory for an increased price and they’re not the only ones. But why are advertisers forced to pay extra for a standard that should be available to everyone anyway. Where is the integrity in only offering value to advertisers willing to pay over and above the norm just to get a decent chance of their ad being seen? The increase for this service doesn’t make sense. It’s seems unfair that given the technology is there to improve the viewability issue for everyone, it’s not made available for all.

Maintain a level playing field that doesn’t discriminate

Google, Microsoft and Amazon pay to be whitelisted with ad blockers and yet I really don’t see the difference between this and Facebook charging brands for more for viewable impressions. If the industry can be better for audiences, more efficient, sustainable and measurable, then it should be, for everyone – right now!

By providing a level playing field everyone becomes accountable for their own performance. This is the only way independent media companies will stand a fighting chance. Retaining balance and giving everyone the opportunity to operate fairly may seem like a pipe-dream when really it’s the easiest way to ensure quality, sustainability and accountability across the industry.

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Takeaways from Programmatic IO

Ad Exchanger’s Programmatic IO was held in April in San Francisco, and as with most trade events there were a few running themes. Here are the key points I took away from conversations, panels, and main speakers.

Fraud and Viewability

One of the biggest topics covered by the speakers and discussed by those attending was how to deal with fraud, and what actions are being taken to ensure viewability. The consensus was that across the industry, fraud is something we need to confront head on by investing in technology that can provide both information and transparency.

This is particularly needed within programmatic video – as it was noted; video is a prime target for fraud due to its high CPMs. Retargeting was also noted as a favorite tactic for committing ad fraud.

One opinion that stuck with me on the issues of fraud and viewability was that it is just the starting point for the industry, and that the impact of video as a medium is what needs to be measured.  A similar point came from Google’s Sean Downey’s during his talk on the Future of Programmatic though he said, “When it comes to impact, video is still king”.

Multiple screens

Tablets, computers, mobile phones, and television – consumers are connecting with content through multiple devices throughout the day and sometimes multiple devices at once.  This is a great opportunity for advertisers to reach their target audience, but it also presents advertisers with a greater challenge to earn engagement.

No longer is there one roadmap for reaching your audience, there are multiple routes, all which must be covered to ensure those who deviate from the standard desktop content model, to the increasingly popular mobile device landscape are accounted for. Targeting users while they view content on mobile is a challenge, engaging them while they are doing this during an ad break, while watching television is yet another. All aspects of the users behaviour need to be considered, and thus, content is changing to accommodate all of their various behaviours.

What we are beginning to see more and more, are advertisers blurring the lines between advertisements and content.  Some of the biggest viral videos in the last year were actually selling products, take for example the “Like a Girl” campaign that Always produced, it currently has over 57 million views on alone.  They not only got people to watch an advertisement, but they also started a conversation – showing the true definition of impact.

Great Statistics

Who doesn’t love a good statistic?  Especially when it shows new growth and opportunity.  Here are a few from Programmatic IO that stood out for me:

Programmatic IO covered viewability and ad fraud, multiple screens and how to ensure audiences are engaged and messages impactful. All these themes resonated because they are all challenges facing our industry. The issues present now unify us in a quest to achieve better. The exciting thing is that we’re creating new products and engaging with new partners that will mean we’re able to achieve more through online video, overcome obstacles and forge further ahead, adding even more value and taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to us through mobile content.

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Coull Quickie – September 2014

In this month’s Coull Quickie Elise wraps up what happened in the digital tech world during September. Hear how two companies joined forces to fight online fraud, and find out why Millennial Media is acquiring Nexage – this and more, all wrapped up in a neat little bow, we call the Coull Quickie.

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